Category: Consensus

Netroots Nation and How the 99% Talk Hurts Consensus

For the first time since 2006, I went to Netroots Nation, as it’s held in Providence. There was one panel about public transportation, entitled “Saving Public Transportation,” whose speakers included Larry Hanley, who dominated the discussion; a moderator; and three political activists: including a local union leader, a Sierra Club representative, and a state legislative candidate who Greater City is supporting. The discussion focused on preserving bus operations rather than on expansion – in fact Hanley made the point that agencies expand capital while cutting back service because the federal government only pays for capital rather than operating funds.

Since the panel was entirely political, and dealt mostly with funding issues, when it was time for questions I asked about the saddling of transit agencies with highway debt; I specifically mentioned Massachusetts’ putting Big Dig mitigation debt on the MBTA. I wanted to see if the panelists would say anything about mode shifting or about the relative power of highways and transit.

Instead, Hanley, who took the question, ignored what I said about highway debt, and instead answered about refinancing debt at lower interest rates, as issue his union is harping about. In reality, according to his union’s own figures, the MBTA could save $26 million a year by refinancing debt; for comparison, its deficit this year, which it plugged with service cuts and a large fare hike, was $163 million, and its total debt payments in 2006 were $351 million, of which $117 million came from the Big Dig. Although the parts of this debt that are not from the Big Dig come from true transit projects, those were voted on by the state legislature, rather than by the MBTA; transit’s low position in the transportation funding food chain is thus responsible for 13.5 times as much money as could be extracted from the banks.

So at first pass, Hanley was pivoting to an issue he was more comfortable talking about, which happens to involve a fraction of the amount of money in question. But at second pass, something more insidious happened. Instead of answering a question about transportation priorities and getting state governments to assume debt they’d unfairly loaded onto transit agencies, which would require clashing with other departments with their own agendas, Hanley preferred to shift blame onto banks. He did not include figures during the panel and so I could not know he was talking about such a small amount of money; his explanation for focusing on the banks is that the MTA renegotiated deals with contractors to get lower prices, so it should do the same with the banks.

And after thinking about this, I realized how it shows exactly how despite appearances, the “We are the 99%” slogan is the exact opposite of any sort of democratic consensus. It silences any notion that there are different interests among the 99%. The auto workers and Providence’s carless residents are both members of the 99%; they have diametrically different interests when it comes to transportation. But in the Grand Struggle, the 99% must be united, and thus the leaders shift any discussion to the common enemy, no matter the relative proportions of the amounts of money in question.

After Scott Walker’s win, Matt Yglesias wrote that different industries have clashing interests just as much as labor and business do. But even within the framework of fighting big business’s influence, two of the most influential opposing interest groups, the union movement and small business, have different interests and are hostile to each other. Dean Baker wrote in The Conservative Nanny State that small businesses are being coddled because they pay lower wages and benefits on average; in general, the American union movement has not organized small businesses and supports the businesses it has already organized, and is hostile toward new companies, which are usually non-union. Small business in turn is hostile toward regulations on wages, starting a business, and so on.

The 99% framing papers over all of that. The voices that dominate the protests believe themselves to be the true representatives of 99% of the population, and by implication their own issues to be the most important. Other issues are subsidiary, or outright distractions from the primary needs. Any movement that claims to represent everyone is not consensual but nationalistic, and just as nationalism requires the elites to declare a certain archetype to be Real Americans (or Britons, or French) and everyone else to be one of many negative stereotypes, so does this 99% framing require movement leaders to coopt or downplay other groups’ issues.

Consensus comes from clashing points of view. The Swiss Socialists are farther left than what is considered serious liberal opinion in the US, and the Swiss People’s Party is about as far right as the Tea Party; they and the centrist parties are more or less in a grand coalition. The consensus comes from the realization that no single faction will ever dominate, and thus the best it can do is distill how it can advance its stated goals (poverty reduction, smaller government, greater national cohesion, etc., depending on the party). The Occupy protesters have very high supermajority requirements at their general assemblies, but they do not have this clash, this diversity in either viewpoints or demographics. They have procedural near-unanimity but not actual consensus governance, leading to a system that excludes most interest groups that comprise the 99%; unsurprisingly, the movement has severe problems with race, since its center is white and thinks it speaks for everyone.

Of course, within the union movement something similar is happening, with the dominant group being the older members. This is what New York-area transit commenter Larry Littlefield calls Generation Greed, spanning people of all political classes.

The end result is that no matter how much rhetoric is thrown around about new politics, forward-looking progressives, and so on, what ends up is a repetition of an old hierarchy, one with Real Working People and with fake ones. It has to; when it has no capability of dealing with tensions between transit users and other groups, or between whites and blacks, or between labor and small business, it cannot project any unity of the 99% otherwise. And without unity, it’s a movement without any clear policy agenda.

Consensus and Astroturf

Anthony Flint’s article in The Atlantic Cities, which compares Jane Jacobs’ protesting to current Tea Party protests against urban planning, inadvertently unmasks a serious issue in any consensus society. In drawing parallels between the near-riots of the 1960s and those of today, he invites us to look at what giving communities more power has wrought. Although his description of the Tea Party is clearly unsympathetic, he leaves two issues incompletely treated – grassroots activism versus astroturf, and starting versus shutting down discussions – and this gives a feeling of a meander, or at worst a late defense of top-down planning with no civic engagement.

Part of the issue of the attitude toward public debate has already been covered elsewhere. Emily Washington does a good job at demolishing the pretense that the Tea Party is consistently against government intervention, in favor of a view that it supports intervention as long as it’s in favor of what its members consider their kind of people. And far from trying to explain to people why its preference for intervention is better, as Jacobs did in The Death and Life, it prefers to yell: see, for example, how it acts in the East Bay.

But the issue of fake grassroots campaigns is as important. Although liberals should be wary of carelessly dismissing the Tea Party as merely a brand for the Koch brothers’ lobbying, it is a general fact that people who perceive themselves as the normals tend to think they speak for everyone when they do not. The Lower Manhattan Expressway really was unpopular in most of the West Village. How could it be otherwise in a neighborhood where a large majority of households did not even own cars? Jacobs, in other words, really was speaking for the community. The same is not true of people who think themselves the silent majority; going back to the East Bay example, after the local Tea Party leader had her tantrum, people informally voted on their priorities in urban planning, and urban priorities like controlling pollution came out on top whereas big houses with big yards came out at the bottom.

Fortunately, formal democratic governance can also reduce the influence of a pernicious majority. For example, the referendum process could be made binding, and more long-term. It’s unthinkable that a governor elected by a bare majority of voters can unilaterally cancel a long-term infrastructure investment without a referendum. In Germany, when the Stuttgart21 disaster led to a state government led by the anti-Stuttgart21 Greens, the new coalition did not act as Rick Scott did. Not only was the Greens’ approach more responsible – they put forth a counter-plan and hired Swiss railroad experts to help – but also they put the cancellation to a referendum, and when the cancellation lost, they accepted the result. And in Switzerland, the referendum process tends to lead to continuity of policy, rather than to the situation in the US, in which the referendum process means that groups will put their preferred policy on the ballot every two years until it passes, and then lock it in so that it cannot be repealed. Although in principle the California governance system looks like direct democracy, in practice it has as much to do with it as Putin’s managed democracy has to do with actual democracy. But insofar as consensus democracy was attempted in the East Bay, the Tea Party disruptors lost.

Of course, merely dismissing the Tea Party as a noisy minority is not enough. The importance of this episode is that consensus governance is vulnerable to this kind of astroturf, or even an independent community of true believers who think they represent many more people than they actually do. On issues that have a clear expert consensus, you won’t find many defenders of consensus governance. Voting on science education means that some school boards will support creationism (not for consensus reasons, but for religious ones). There is an entire movement dedicated to restoring top-down social control, whose leaders come from a background in science popularization that really does boil down to transmitting the experts’ conclusions to the masses.

And yet, urban planning is not evolutionary biology. The need for consensus comes from the fact that planners have a history of getting things wrong in a disastrous fashion, and often of being upended by laypeople like Jacobs. Authoritarian planning will treat entire classes of people as problems to be solved, and house them in a series of projects modeled after the modern prison system: project towers, group homes, low-rise projects, supervised releases to suburbia. Giving people this power over others and hoping that the people in power will be wise is wishful thinking; one might as well support absolute monarchy.

Thus, there is no way to both have a good governance mechanism and prevent people from staging revolts for wrong reasons. A democracy will sometimes vote the wrong people into power; democratic urban planning will let itself be disrupted by a group of organized radicals. In both cases, the change in power should not spell the end of democracy; the ousted side routinely regroups and wins later in national bipartisan politics, and regularly has some input about government in national multiparty politics. Maybe all cities need is to treat their planning process with the same respect that countries treat their legislative process.

Consensus and Policing

The recent spate of mass arrests and brutality at various Occupy demonstrations is not a matter of bad cops like John Pike or even bad politicians like Michael Bloomberg. Tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets have occurred throughout the US over the last ten years, as a result of a new theory of crowd control, coming from the broken windows approach toward ordinary crime.

The interest for consensus urbanism is that although the approach seems geared toward protecting consensus values, in reality the values the police is protecting are manufactured from scratch, and are only shared by a minority that treats itself as normal. There is no social consensus leading to the police approach toward public protest – indeed, public sympathy toward Occupy Wall Street soared after the first mass arrest. The new authoritarian approach is the result of an internal development within law enforcement. Just as a truly consensual urban space needs to have ample opportunities for individuality (as opposed to just individualism), community policing needs to treat communication with the people as a two-way avenue.

Although there are sporadic media reports of protester violence, in reality both my and my friends’ observations of nonviolence at the encampments and the history of the past ten years suggest otherwise. In brief: on the heels of the anti-globalization protest in Seattle in 1999, police departments decided that their previous strategy of good-faith negotiations with protesters had failed, and switched to a strategy of surveillance, free speech zones, and selective use of arrests and non-lethal violence, including pepper spray. Under this strategy, communication is one-way, and negotiations with authority are pointless, as anti-war protesters discovered in 2003 when they were denied permits despite months of negotiation. As with broken-windows policing, the police treats protests as disorderly conduct that must be punished in order to promote middle-class values.

The part about middle-class values is where consensus versus authoritarianism comes into play. Although middle-class values seem like consensus, they really are not in this case. In contrast with the broken-windows policing of turnstile jumping and similar petty quality-of-life crimes, in which much of the impetus came from community requests, in the case of protesting the violence comes entirely top-down.

The creation of a fictitious middle-class mentality that considers all protest distasteful masks how much of a minority interest it is. The Progressive movement needed to create a middle-class American identity from scratch and impose it on immigrants and other tenement dwellers (to the point of opposing tenement improvement efforts, which would distract from the need to suburbanize); French nationalists needed to impose Parisian French on a country that did not speak it; modern-day police departments impose conformity and distaste for protest on a population that dreads unemployment and has rock-bottom approval for such major institutions as Congress. Everyone is a deviant in one way or another. At best, what society can do short of recognizing this fact is to list special personal interests and weird habits that are more acceptable, and relegate the others to people’s private homes.

The importance of solving the problem of police authoritarianism by consensus is that doing it any other way will just replace one master with another. To me, nonviolence, consensus, and democracy are not just abstract values. They come from the impossibility of improving things by force. Any political force powerful enough to control the police is by definition more powerful than the police, which means it will be able to exercise even more control over people; this is why communist revolutions always result in repression. The only way to improve the situation is to make the political force one that is comprised of ordinary people rather than an elite vanguard, and one that works by persuasion and communication rather than by raw power.

Update: I forgot to talk about this, but one way to see that the cops really do see themselves as values enforcers is their behavior toward cyclists. Anyone who occasionally reads Streetsblog will be able to cite multiple examples in which cops were lenient toward drivers who blocked bike lanes or even ran over pedestrians or doored or hit cyclists (and in one case ran over a pedestrian themselves), and multiple other examples in which they were treated lawful cyclist behavior as illegal or clipped bikes for trumped-up reasons and harassed their owners. All of these examples are from New York except the cop who ran over a pedestrian, who’s from Jersey City. This is a city in which drivers are a minority, and yet they’re considered Us, whereas cyclists are Them: hipsters, radicals, immigrants, Europeans. Not only are cops upholding a set of values rather than the law, but also those aren’t even consensus values.

Trust (Hoisted from Comments)

Robert Cruickshank’s much-anticipated reply to my posts about political versus technical transit supporters and their activism says that high-speed rail is a political issue, and therefore what’s important is to just get it done.

To me, the problem comes from my unfortunate choice of the terms political and technical. The main difference is not about technical concerns; it’s about whether one trusts American transit agencies. Thus I don’t really see the point when Robert complains about neo-liberalism and the evils of financial cost-benefit calculations. The terminology I picked may have reinforced the image of technicals as heartless engineers and technocrats, but in reality the opposite is true. Technicals have a much bigger standard deviation in their political attitudes than politicals; they range from Rothbardian libertarians to free speech advocates and people who make fun of the phrase “undisclosed location” in the context of US-sponsored torture. The common thread is mistrust of agency officials; the technical arguments are there because when we disagree with officials rather than just report what they say, we need to actually rebut their claims.

In contrast with Robert’s picture of the technical as a technocrat, my technical activism comes from the opposite end: it’s a rejection of a self-justifying bureaucracy that equates “build nothing” with “continue to build highways” and that thinks progress equals megaprojects. It’s a matter of supporting consensus politics and informed citizenry rather than subservience to agency officials. US government officials spend 2-10 times more on infrastructure projects as they have to. They have agency turf battles that make transit less user-friendly, and to cover up those turf battles they propose to spend billions of dollars on gratuitous viaducts, caverns, tunnels, and what have you. They write passenger rail-hostile regulations. And when called on it, they defraud the public and even tell outright lies. Trust in government agencies is so low that when the California HSR Authority admitted to the cost overruns, the LA Times treated it as a moment of honesty.

It’s precisely this trust that people care about, and it’s eroding when HSR becomes the equivalent of $600 toilet seats. Of course there is money for transit, but it’s either wasted or not given to transit because people can’t trust that it can be used wisely. I view it as part of my goal to showcase how good transit can be done, so that it doesn’t look so expensive for the benefit provided.

A fundamental tenet of risk perception theory is that people are most concerned about risks they find morally reprehensible – and this collusion between government and government contractors offends me. Just because it’s greenwashed doesn’t mean it’s any better than subsidizing oil drilling, paying military contractors $1,000 per day, or bailing out financial companies that then use the money to pay the executives who caused the financial crisis multi-million dollar bonuses. No wonder that when Republicans talk about the ingenuity of individual business leaders, they talk about Mark Zuckerberg, the Google guys, and Steve Jobs; they have to go that far out of the industries that give money to the GOP, such as oil, to find people who’ve actually innovated rather than just sucked public money. In fact one of the impetuses for the spread of neo-liberal boosterism in popular culture is the perception that entrepreneurs who are untainted by the public sector are good, while government is inherently incompetent and corrupt. When the government doesn’t do a good job, people stop believing it’s even possible for good government to exist.

Yonah Freemark writes that it doesn’t matter if costs are high because HSR costs are a small part of the transportation budget, which is itself a tiny part of GDP. But transportation is also not the biggest priority in spending. Most of the GDP, even most government spending, is and should be things that aren’t transportation; and most transportation funding isn’t and shouldn’t be intercity.

For an order of magnitude of what other issues are involved, Robert is proposing $1 trillion in student loan forgiveness as economic stimulus. My point is not to impugn him; I agree with him there. It’s that the big-ticket items are not transportation, but instead transportation is one of many small-ticket items of spending. But pool many small expenses – a hundred billion here, a hundred billion there – and you’re starting to talk about real money.

And this is true politically, not just economically. The Democratic Party has been advocating for universal health care since the Truman administration. After early successes with Medicare and Medicaid, its efforts stalled; its empathy-based appeals went nowhere. In Politics Lost, Joe Klein writes about how Bob Shrum would insert the phrase “health care is a right, not a privilege” into the speeches of every Presidential candidate he worked for – and how every candidate he worked for lost. Meanwhile, US health care costs were ballooning faster than those of other first-world countries. By 2005-6 it was impossible to miss, and liberal pundits seized and owned the issue, portraying American health care as not only inequitable but also inefficient. Five years later, they got their universal health care bill, flawed as it is. Nowadays the people who are pooh-poohing the idea of health care cost control are Greg Mankiw and the Tea Party.

Spending is a zero sum game, but economically and politically. The Great Recession won’t last forever. Any infrastructure building plan is going to outlast the recession, triggering real tax hikes, spending cuts, or interest rate hikes in the future. It’s fine if the infrastructure is cost-effective; it’s not fine if it isn’t. (In comments on CAHSR Blog, I was told that the example of Japan shows that the recession can last forever; if it does, the US will have bigger problems than transportation.)

And this is equally true politically. The amount of government spending is controlled tightly by the political acceptability of deficits. Some deficits are more politically acceptable than others – for example, military waste is acceptable to many right-wingers – but in this political climate, HSR is at least as controversial on the right as extending jobless benefits, and far less useful as stimulus per dollar spent. The unemployed tend not to fork over much of their benefits to international consultants. If a few billion dollars are enough to showcase workable HSR then by all means the administration should spend them, but if they’d eat $20 billion out of a $50 billion jobs bill that Obama’s going to run for reelection on, there’s no point.

I think that both on transportation and on health care, there’s a political not-invented-here reasons among the partisans. Liberals owned health care cost control, so Greg Mankiw started arguing that it wouldn’t help society much and that high costs are a good thing and Sarah Palin referred to cost control as death panels. The issue with transportation is a little different; while many technicals are leftists, it’s anti-urban conservatives and Koch-libertarians who cancel transit projects, use phrases like “the money tree,” and demagogue about how no rail project is ever affordable. My instinct is to point out that those conservatives have no trouble overspending on road projects and rationalizing highway cost overruns; but if you think in terms of spending, and treat transportation as one program of many stimulus projects, there’s a real not-invented-here issue here.

Ironically, despite Robert’s claim that costs don’t matter and benefits do, much of what I rail against is exactly benefits. I personally am reminded by how awful the turf battles are every time I have to buy an MBTA ticket at the cafe since Amtrak bullied the MBTA out of the Providence station booths, and every time I take the subway to Penn Station and need to change concourses to get my Amtrak ticket. The key for me is to make transit cheap enough that it can be deployed on a large scale, and to make it convenient and pedestrian-friendly, which park-and-ride-oriented commuter rail is not.

Cities and Multiple Equilibria

A growing idea among emergent urbanists is that there’s a natural form to the city, one that maximizes activity and that thrives in the absence of regulation. In this view, any sort of urban planning, from postwar suburbia to the Manhattan grid, is just a constraint that makes cities less livable, and in contrast, there is an urban form that people have a near-universal taste for, and all others are some response to bad regulations. Social problems are caused by bad urban form, and the reason American reformers wanted to move everyone to the suburbs was just that the cities failed to look like European cities.

There is an implicit ideology in this view, which is only occasionally hinted at: the ideology of single equilibrium. It holds that there’s just one stable state of nature, and all attempts to change it will just lead to an eventual return to equilibrium, and the greater the change, the more violent the return will be. If there’s a persistent situation away from the equilibrium, it’s a result of pernicious regulations. In economics, it’s the neo-classical school, shaken only by the Great Depression and by the Keynesian argument that depression is every bit an equilibrium as full employment. In every environmental controversy, it’s the individualist cultural bias holding that nature will always return to equilibrium, contrasting with the egalitarian view that nature is inherently fragile, the hierarchical view that it tolerates change within some boundaries to be determined by the experts, and the fatalist view that it is capricious.

Reality is of course more complicated than that. Cities can have multiple equilibria. Unplanned Tokyo and London are happy just the way they are; so are New York, Atlanta, Singapore, Paris, Tel Aviv, and Moscow, each planned in its own way. If people in those cities dislike the current situation, it’s not out of dislike of the present urban form but out of discontent with unemployment, living costs, economic inequality, and other social ills. And if people in mature cities dislike situations that are caused explicitly by their urban layout, then it comes from narrow urban and transportation issues, e.g. California’s air pollution problem.

Historically, this view was more associated with suburbanization and urban renewal. Of course those involved a hefty amount of zoning, but the same could be said of e.g. Christopher Alexander’s support of height limits. In both cases, problems that are really about social relations and poverty are associated with urban design and are used as an excuse to heavily modify cities; that, and not the tenement urban form, was what drove New York’s elite to want suburbanization. Indeed, suburbanization happened in almost all developed countries; the romanticism for the countryside by residents of the rich cities is part of 19th century nationalism, and happened across the first world, regardless of how cities actually looked like.

Nearly every combination of urban form and social class exists somewhere in the world. Just because Americans like some unplanned urban neighborhoods and are gentrifying the cities does not mean that there’s a universal desire for anything, or that people in suburbs are just repressed about how bad their social environment is.

To deal with the fact that people like urban environments that are very different, and that there are persistent cultural tastes determined by a few decades of policy, people who believe in single equilibria have to stretch reality more and more to get the achieved picture. James Howard Kunstler is an especially egregious example: since people don’t mind sprawl and city development that he doesn’t like (he views Manhattan as “despotically mechanistic” and sympathizes with Lewis Mumford for hating cities based on his experience on the Upper West Side), he’s spun a fantasy in which peak oil is going to create ruralization and destroy the suburbs, while also doing so in peaceful enough a way that he’ll survive to see the resulting utopia. But he’s really not doing anything Mumford didn’t do. Mumford couldn’t stand cities and thought their inhabitants just didn’t know they needed urban renewal; Kunstler thinks the same about post-1830 urban development.

Conversely, development that’s generally considered good but violates the rules needs to be shoehorned into the rules. That’s where you get people claiming that Paris is traditional urbanism, where in reality its wide boulevards are every bit as planned as Manhattan’s, just along a radial plan rather than a grid.

Because of the association between this view of nature and political libertarianism, we see defenses framed in terms of nature very frequently. It’s not only individualists or libertarians who do this (read most environmentalist tracts), and there are emergent urbanists who hint at desirability more (for example, Charlie Gardner), but this view and the insistence on natural law are still correlated. The idea inherent in this view is that what’s desirable is what the market wants, and what the market wants should be divined by looking at cases in which there is no government intervention.

The problem is that it’s very hard to really disentangle the economy from politics. It’s easy enough when it comes to consumer goods and other cases in which markets clearly work, but when it comes to infrastructure and collective decisions, it’s much harder – hard enough that Randall O’Toole can pretend that government regulations of parking and subsidies for roads are trivial and call himself a libertarian. The obvious response is to point out the opposite, how government subsidies permeate the opposing view, which is easy enough with a person as dishonest as O’Toole. But in reality it’s often impossible to distinguish political from economic actions, and the cases where there is a clear-cut difference are rare enough that they can be shoehorned into a single theory ad hoc; most urbanist theories have more serious proponents than the people who’ve become the spokespeople of suburbanism.

The reason I insist on consensus as a decision-making tool is that it avoids this assumption that all cities have to look essentially the same. And the reason I did a mini-experiment asking commenters where they grew up and what kind of urbanism they’re comfortable with is precisely that people are different. Formal community structures of course privilege some people and ignore others – most importantly, they elevate existing long-term residents and ignore transients and people who are priced out of the neighborhood. They also lead to unpredictable results, depending on hyper-local issues of culture and history or on charismatic local leaders. But the idea of having different people come together and talk about how they’d like their city to look like is much more powerful than trying to derive a natural order from first principles and treating all other orders as deviations.

Consensus and Vision

The death of Steve Jobs has led to impromptu discussions about the nature of his genius, causing some to call for a Steve Jobs of transit. Human Transit quotes such calls in comments and tries to strike a balance between good organization and singular vision; Market Urbanism tweets that it’s impossible only because of public control.

Instead of this fantasy for someone who will have enough power to make transit great, let us step back and ask what makes transit cities work. It’s not really vision – the inventions that have made transit more useful in the last few decades (for example, the takt and the integrated timetable) are so distributed that it’s impossible to assign them a single inventor or even agency. And in the US, the last true visionary of urban transportation, Robert Moses, had about the same effect on the city he ruled that such visionaries as Stalin and Mao had over their countries.

The absolute worst quote one can invoke in the field is Henry Ford’s apocryphal claim that if he’d asked customers what they’d wanted, they’d have said faster horses; Ford may never have said that, but he believed something along these lines, and as a result lost the market to General Motors in the 1920s. People tend to project the same attitude, with far more success, to Steve Jobs: he saved Apple from ruin when he came back, he saw potential in Xerox’s computers that nobody else did, he focused on great design above all. Some of this is due to the cult of personality Jobs created around himself, unparalleled in the industry; a better assessment of Apple’s early growth comes from Malcolm Gladwell, who dispenses with Great Man histories and talks about innovation as an incremental process requiring multiple different business cultures to get anywhere.

In cities, there really is a need for consensus rather than autocratic vision. The reason Moses was so bad for New York is not just that he happened to be wrong about how cities should look. Roads were not his only sin, and on one account, the use of tolls, he was better than the national road builders. No; he reigned over a city that to him existed only on maps and in models, routing expressways through blocks with the wrong ethnic mix and depriving neighborhoods of amenities in retribution for not being able to complete his plans. Because he was insulated from anyone who could tell him what the effect of his policies was, and had no effective opposition, he could steamroll over just anyone.

The reality is that any Steve Jobs-like autocrat is going to act the same. Moses did it; Janette Sadik-Khan is doing it, delaying even popular projects in Upper Manhattan because of the perception that it’s against livability; Jaime Lerner did it, moving pollution from Curitiba to its suburbs and slowing but not preventing the spread of cars. In contrast, Jane Jacobs’ own observations of her struggle are the opposite, focusing on consensus and participation and crediting “hundreds of people” with saving the West Village. Everything I said about consensus and cities and about democratic consensus applies here.

The same is by and large true of transit. Although the subject is more technical, the role of experts is similar to their role in urbanism: answering narrow technical questions (“does the soil allow this building type to be built?”, “how much will it cost to run trains faster?”), helping people see tradeoffs and make their own choices, bringing up foreign examples that local activists may not be familiar with. They’re just one of several interest groups that have to be heard.

I think people who ascribe invention to great individuals finding things consumers didn’t even know they wanted are projecting the history of the 19th century to present times. At the time, invention was done individually, often by people without formal education. It was already fairly incremental, but much less so than today, and was portrayed as even less incremental since to get a patent approved the inventor had to play up his own role and denigrate previous innovations. Since it was not done in the context of large companies or universities, the corporate culture issue that Gladwell focuses on didn’t apply. The economy, too, was understood as a process involving discrete inventions, rather than a constant rate of growth, as Andrew Odlyzko’s monograph on the Railway Mania discusses in chapter 15.

We no longer live in such a world. Fixed-route public transportation has existed since the 1820s. Practically all innovations within transit since have been slow, continuous improvements, done by large groups of people or by many individuals working independently. Even implementations of previous ideas that became wildly successful are rarely the heroic fit of a mastermind. The few cases that are, such as Jaime Lerner’s dirt-cheap BRT, indeed spawn rants about democratic consensus and raves about vision and fast decisions.

In contrast, I do not see any mention in mainstream US media of the role of Swiss consensus politics in the backing of the Gotthard Base Tunnel or in SBB’s 50% over-the-decade growth in passenger rail traffic. If there’s a story about Tokyo or Hong Kong, it’ll be about skyscrapers and development, not about their collective decisions to restrain car traffic while rapid transit was still in development. And while China’s rapid expansion of transit and high-speed rail, at much lower cost than in the US, has gotten much media coverage, scant attention has been paid to Spain even though its costs are lower and its expansion is nearly as rapid.

What’s happening is that people imagine single heroes to do what is really the work of many. Alternatively, they romanticize autocrats, even ones who were unmitigated disasters, such as Moses. Even stories about consensus and social movements get rewritten as stories about great people, for example Jane Jacobs, or more broadly Martin Luther King. It’s an aesthetic that treats everything as a story, and in the 19th century, it often was: in other words, it’s steampunk. The difference is that steampunk artists don’t wish to return to a world in which women have to wear corsets. And in similar vein, people who imagine benevolent, visionary dictators should not try to confuse their fiction with reality.

The Option of Profitable Transit

David Levinson’s post saying that transit should strive to restructure and be profitable stirred much discussion on neighboring blogs, including Human Transit (which broadly agrees with the idea if not the libertarian tone) and The Transport Politic (which does not), as well as multiple commenters who chimed in noting that it’s ridiculous to require transit to break even when cars get so many subsidies. While I agree with Levinson and Jarrett’s sentiments about core versus welfare services in principle, in practice the causes of transit losses are orthogonal to the subjects under discussion; the actual issues are somewhat related to what the commenters mention, but those commenters don’t go nearly far enough.

In the original post, Levinson proposes the following distinction:

Mass transit systems in the United States are collectively losing money hand over fist. Yet many individual routes (including bus routes) earn enough to pay their own operating (and even capital costs). But like bad mortgages contaminating the good, money-losing transit routes are bogging down the system.

We can divide individual systems into three sets of routes:

1. Those routes break-even or profit financially (at a given fare). This is the “core”.

2. Those lines which are necessary for the core routes to break-even, and collectively help the set of routes break-even. These are the “feeders”.

3. Those lines which lose money, and whose absence would not eliminate profitability on other routes. These money-losers are a welfare program. We might politely call them “equity” routes.

Jarrett, whose work has focused on priorities, not only agrees with the distinction but also downplay the importance of routes in category #2, and has often advocated that agencies let go of low-performing routes and concentrate on trunk frequency. While Jarrett is right and this distinction is critical when an agency needs to reduce its expenditure, it’s not going to make any agency profitable.

The number of routes in the US that break even financially is minimal. It’s easy enough to come up with routes that cover their avoidable costs, but transit has enough fixed costs that retreating to them is not going to be enough. For a New York example, see this spreadsheet, due to Cap’n Transit: although multiple bus routes are portrayed as profitable, once one checks the more detailed spreadsheet the Cap’n links to, it turns out that when including both direct and indirect operating costs, the best-performing route, the M86, drops from an operating ratio of 172% to one of 91%. Moreover, the best-performing routes do not form a trunk system, but are for the most part short-hop crosstown buses, with very high ridership per kilometer of route length. Most networks that actually are profitable consist of buses feeding into the Lincoln Tunnel, a choke point that has an exclusive bus lane in the morning rush hour.

Since in some other parts of the world urban transit is in fact profitable, we need to address causes other than the existence of lesser-used routes. I propose that instead of classifying American lines into profitable and unprofitable ones, a division in which one category is going to be very lonely, we classify whole networks according to what makes them lose so much money. I believe the following list of causes is relatively uncontroversial for good transit advocates:

1. High labor costs, predominantly overstaffing, but at some agencies (for example, Muni) also very high salaries.

2. Poor design, e.g. of intermodal transfers.

3. Low fares on some networks, which exist predominantly to provide minimal mobility of last resort rather than core transportation.

4. Bad regulations, especially when it comes to regional rail.

5. An auto-oriented policy.

Cause #5 is the elephant in the room. It’s not just ongoing auto subsidies and such mandates as Euclidean zoning and free parking. It’s also a decades-long history promoting auto-centric development, as a result of which uses are too widespread and low-intensity for transit to be of much use on most trips. Even edge cities are too dense sometimes; if you can find Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy’s sadly now behind paywall article Edgeless Cities, read it for a quick explanation of the limitations of the relatively intense but auto-centric development form of Tysons Corner or White Plains.

The best analogy I can give here is a growing industry or industrial zone. Early on in a country’s development, it will want industrial policy: subsidies, tax breaks, protectionism. The US railroads got it, most Japanese exporters got it, Samsung and Hyundai got it. As a country becomes richer and its economy becomes more mature, those industries become profitable and suddenly start advocating free trade and free markets, even for themselves, and whine loudly at the suggestion that rich regions or industries should subsidize poor ones.

There are plenty of routes in the US that, while unprofitable now, could be made profitable with better management and operating practices. This is usually what I write about. Those are causes #1, 2, and 4. Cause #3 applies to some but not the most relevant agencies; fares in large US cities tend to be average or high by international standards, though perhaps lower than the revenue-maximizing fares. Altogether, fixing what are essentially issues of competence is going to raise transit use, possibly to acceptable levels. But it will not turn New York into Tokyo, Boston into Taipei, or Providence into Zurich.

Consensus and Immigration

This is the final installment in my series about consensus. For the first two posts, see Consensus and Cities, and Democratic Versus Elite Consensus.

There’s a pervasive view that, far from a consequence of extreme diversity, consensus is in fact a feature of homogeneous societies. For example, the popular view in Scandinavia is that the traditional high-trust society is under assault by immigrants who do not share the same social values as the native-born. Robert Putnam goes further and shows that diversity is associated with less trust and social capital, which made many racists joyful that here, there was a scientific basis for hate. The conclusion they as well as many ordinary members of the elite draw is that immigrants are a problem for society to deal with.

Before presenting an alternative view, let me point out that in fact, some of the world’s most famous consensus societies are also the most diverse. The Netherlands had a sharp division between Catholics, Protestants, and secular socialists for a century; Dutch consensus democracy is based in part on the need for those communities to coexist. Belgium is practically two separate countries – one Flemish, one Walloon. Switzerland, too, is diverse, though the German-speaking community has a majority. Those societies are all deeply suspicious of immigrants, but their attitude to the diversity they have built natively is positive, and, in the Netherlands, one attempt at integration involved creating a separate pillar for Muslims.

The diversity in those countries is discounted today by Americans and even Europeans who have grown to seeing the West as a single coherent civilization in opposition to others, but back when they developed their model of inter-ethnic consensus, Protestant vs. Catholic and other internal European divisions were critical. By analogy, it would have been senseless to talk about Jews, Irish, and Italians in New York in 1900 as one undifferentiated white mass.

The negative attitudes toward immigrants in the most diverse European countries, as seen in the rise of the SVP and Geert Wilders’ PVV and in the success of their nativist programs, suggests the reason for the xenophobia is not fear of diversity, but fear of change. Consensus government works slowly – and, at any rate, the mainstreaming of democratic consensus has gotten to a point that there’s a strong elite consensus for not dealing with incendiary issues. Rapid entry of new people into an area causes NIMBYism everywhere; when those people are distinguished by skin color or religion, the result is racism.

It is not my intention to excoriate racism here, much less European racism – it is pointless. However, let me suggest ways for social and political leaders to avoid the above problems – to build a consensus in favor of more social integration and acceptance. This is especially important in diverse cities, where immigrants tend to cluster, and where there’s preexisting diversity making it feasible to avoid majority-minority politics.

First, immigrants are not a problem. Neither is immigration. The problem is racism. This is the mistake of the elites in every European country: they whitewash the existence of discrimination and make little attempt to fix it. A good reference is Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves, portraying French governments as knowing exactly how many Muslims there are in their communities when it comes to discussing gender-segregated swimming pools but not knowing or discussing discrimination. Alternatively, read these two New York Times articles published in the wake of the French riots.

Second, in the long run, diverse communities become stronger, and the trend of hunkering down dissipates. It’s a long process, and the goal should be to make it shorter, and avoid the risk of long-term divisions as occurred between blacks and whites in the US over the centuries. Putnam himself notes it in his study; his three examples include black-white integration in the army following desegregation, Catholic/Protestant intermarriage from the postwar period to the 1980s, and the turning of ethnic whites from disparate nationalities into Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

Third, it’s imperative to make integration a matter of local consensus rather than a political play by one party, either a liberal party looking for patronage voters or a conservative party looking for strikebreakers. In other words, immigrants are a group of people, not a solution or a problem.

A good example of a mayor who seems to abide by the first two principles but not the third, viewing immigrants as a solution, is Schenectady’s Al Jurczynski. After hearing that the Guyanese don’t accept welfare, Jurczynski began a concerted campaign of luring them in from New York and giving them free housing that would otherwise have to be demolished. Many of Jurczynski’s actions, such as going to Guyanese areas of Queens and going on a Guyanese radio show, are a good example of what political leaders must do to make immigrants feel like part of the city; however, the consensus he created exists purely among the business class, and therefore has drawn animosity from other groups within the city, including existing minorities, who feel slighted by the implication. It was a political play, much like Nixon and Pat Buchanan’s strategy of appealing to Catholics.

It’s not hard to redefine Americanness (or Britishness, or Dutchness) along more inclusive lines – it’s been done before in the face of new waves of immigration, often in order to maintain a majority of those defined as white Americans but using methods that could be generalized to decrease rather than increase animosity.

A mayor who wants to promote integration rather than create an ethnic group captive to his political needs will not engage in such divisive politics. He will walk in the ethnic enclaves of his own city first, making people already in the city feel welcome. He will make a positive effort to hire qualified minorities and listen to communities on the issues relevant to them, including, for example, making an effort to integrate the police force in order to reduce racist brutality.

Democratic Versus Elite Consensus

This is part 2 of my series on consensus, following Consensus and Cities.

Early-20th century America was a nation with remarkable consensus about cities. The progressive reformers, the populists, and the environmental movement all agreed that cities were bad, and the only solution to their problem was widespread destruction of slums. It’s this general agreement that gave autocrats like Robert Moses their power. Obviously, this consensus missed one key piece of the puzzle – namely, the consent of the urban dwellers who were being discussed as objects rather than as participants. Thus, a good consensus has to involve everyone, and not just the elites, or else it at best degenerates into elite vs. populist politics, and at worst leads to virtual colonialism.

The distinction between democratic or popular consensus and elite consensus is important, because in places that have only had the latter, including the US, people can form their views of consensus around features that are really special to elite consensus, as represented by insider publications such as the Washington Post, most of the New York Times, and a horde of Washington-area trade journals. For one, elite speech is very measured, and phrased in reasonable-sounding ways: concerned but understanding of limits, haughty-sounding and wonky but still reducible to soundbites for the lay reader, and always phrased in an understated way. Those are Krugman’s Very Serious People, and the National Review’s liberal elite. The US has come a long way since the 1950s and enough people see this elite as a distinct faction rather than as a real national consensus, but many of the elite’s values have percolated and taint the notion of consensus.

In contrast, democratic consensus is a messy affair. What’s happening right now in the Israeli J14 housing protests – or, even more so, what happened a month ago, before the protest became an institution by itself – is exactly the process of consensus-formation. Tents representing all social and ethnic groups in the country are present. The protest began with culturally liberal Tel Avivis, but has Haredi tents; it’s majority-Jewish, but has had Arab speakers in Jewish towns and spread to Arab towns. On the ground, the dialogue is the exact opposite of that of the Washington Post: people yell and argue until the small hours of the night, debating different views of how to improve the housing situation, and listening to one another. They tolerate trolls who maliciously propose settlement expansion as the solution but do not feed them; they have more important things to discuss. The consensus ideas they’ve formed for how to deal with the housing situation involve concerns of all groups – two of the protesters’ demands are specific to Arab and Bedouin minorities, and, unlike the mishmash of demands one sees in the US at ANSWER protests, those demands are relevant to the issue at hand.

In the US, any attempt to discuss things in the manner of J14 rather than in the manner of the Washington Post is immediately lumped together with unserious partisanship. Even people who know how rotten elite consensus is have gotten used to its discourse: thus, Michael Lind exalts the attitudes of what he calls post-consensus America in a hippie-punching piece against public transportation and environmentalism.

Ironically, calls for technocracy are sometimes a reaction against this elite domination, when the elites put themselves on the other side of expert consensus, as they do on climate issues (see Lind’s other piece on the matter, or anything on the subject by George Will), and prefer to talk in terms of platitudes about unpredictability and how scientists may be wrong. There are sizable and growing organizations and pundits criticizing consensus from this technocratic point of view – for one, anything involved in the new atheist movement.

The properties of consensus are orthogonal to those of elitism, and are different from the properties of the combination of both. The most important is listening to people with different points of view without sneering. How messy or orderly the discussions are is not relevant – it speaks only to how different the parties involved are from one another and how much they initially disagree. It’s the process of listening, of forming conversation, that makes for productive and consensus-building debate. How nice people are to one another is only tangentially important. I submit that if you compare a Room for Debate piece on transportation with a thread of the same length on a transportation blog – even a repetitive fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass on the California High-Speed Rail Blog, let alone the ideological arguments about financing on The Transport Politic – you’ll find that the blog is going to be more informative. Lay people talking to each other will beat thinktank fellows and professional pundits talking at each other any day.

The problem with extending this to urbanism is that cities’ power structure makes it very hard to give ordinary people the voice they deserve. People who are not part of the elite, by definition, are less powerful. And being elite by itself changes how one thinks, leading to factional interests different from those of ordinary people, independently of questions such as which social and ethnic groups the elites are drawn from. (Communist Party elites, high-income elites, and racial elites are equally unconcerned with the average person.)

Only in a city with a completely gated establishment can major media organizations refer to slum dwellers as “a city within a city” when they outnumber people living in formal neighborhoods, and quote researchers as saying crime is a big problem in the slums when it in fact isn’t. Unfortunately, as Robert Neuwirth‘s experience in Mumbai shows, such cities exist.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, democratic consensus is possible, by slowly persuading all stakeholders in a community that one’s solution is good and in line with community values. Usually, within a small enough community, the problem of democratic vs. elite consensus is less acute. Some groups are privileged over others – for example, long-term residents versus recent immigrants – but arguably no more so than in citywide politics. Where localism is oppressive is in treatments of minorities in situations with a defined majority group, but when it comes to participatory inclusion, it’s no worse than appealing to the power brokers and hoping for good. In a diverse neighborhood with multiple factions of which none can dominate, this problem is usually quite small. The local elites are not so powerful that one can’t approach them on more or less equal footing.

However, the only way to systematically unleash the power of democratic consensus is via populism, as the example of J14 shows us. It by itself is not purely consensus-based – it comes from a partisan fight between the people and those in power in which the people are acting as one bloc – but the result usually involves a fair amount of consensus, since anything else would lead to divide-and-rule politics. In the US – as well as Israel, and other developed countries I’m somewhat familiar with the discourse of – such populism can come off as polarizing and anti-consensual, because of the misidentification of what are really features of elitism with consensus.

Of course, to many people, populism is not a dirty word. The Tea Party, and its right-wing populist equivalents around Europe, has had many successes precisely because there’s a segment of the US that wants neither consensus nor the current elite. The same can be said of any proto-populism on the left. But there are plenty of people who do want government to work, and do like dialogue, and they can be turned off by what they perceive as unserious attitudes.

The way to create a situation in which both the relatively secure middle class and more radical factions – both ideological and socioeconomic – are willing to cast aside elite values is then to wait until things get bad enough. But it’s easier to imagine such consensus happening today than in 1965, and not just because of reduced racial animosities. It’s as if Marx was right except that, instead of a violent revolution, the dispossessed fight for social reforms that make their economic situation more secure.

The time could already be right. And the process of replacing elite bipartisanship – or hyper-partisan fights between parties that are unconcerned with actually governing – can be pursued on the local level, in parallel, to allow for time to create bottom-up institutions to take a more prominent role in the future. It could be that the US is waiting for its own tents in New York and Washington to lead to nationwide demonstrations.

Consensus and Cities

Note: this is the first post in a series of 3-4 articles about consensus urbanism.

The dominant discourse on cities nowadays focuses on the role of visionary, top-down innovation. Some write about mayors who change paradigms, such as Michael Bloomberg and now Rahm Emanuel. Others write about entrepreneurs and the role of new technology, and invariably portray the change as groundbreaking and unforeseen by all except the dogged inventor. In contrast to this worldview, let me propose a view of urbanism based on political consensus among disparate interests, on forging agreement instead of trying to defeat everyone else.

The current trend toward livable cities, as seen in road diets and bike lane projects, is entirely top-driven. Bloomberg decided to make it his legacy, and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan moves aggressively with little consultation with community interests except those that already agree with her. Rahm Emanuel, infamous for his combative style, followed suit. This caused livable streets advocates, led by Streetsblog, to often identify community consensus with NIMBYism and top-down change with improvement; it’s unavoidable on Streetsblog, though sometimes there are glimpses of support for a more consensus-based policy on other livable streets blogs.

In reality, in cities, there are too many interest groups for one to normally dominate: labor, the middle class, multiple kinds of business, organized religion – and in the exceptional cases, such as Singapore, it comes out of autocracy. This is especially true in the US, with its multi-ethnic cities, requiring delicate acts of ticket-balancing. This is easy to paper over in majoritarian political systems, as the US is, but the actual practice of politics in American cities is far from majoritarian. Liberal cities have become cities of primaries – one wins by assembling an ad hoc coalition that can win the Democratic primary. In general, cities have multiple interest groups, even independently of ethnicity: see for example Christof Spieler’s analysis of the 2009 Houston mayoral race. The reason this political process hasn’t led to a consensus-based decision making is that the electoral process – in particular, the authoritarian strong-mayor system – is anti-consensus.

And yet, a consensus-based agenda is possible. As one of the Streetsblog community members explained to me, the way to obtain community support for a project is to talk to all stakeholders in the neighborhood, and understand what their hidden hopes and fears are; it’s important to avoid any situation in which someone later complains “Nobody informed me about this.” Ordinary people are far less intransigent than they can appear in the papers. For example, along Queens Boulevard, the long-term residents are still reeling from plans to turn the street into an expressway, and therefore will support or oppose a livable streets proposal in part based on whether they perceive it as turning the street into more of a highway (closing cross-streets) or less of one (widening sidewalks).

A community so empowered with its own ideas about how to make itself pedestrian-friendlier will of course help if a top-down reformist politician wants to make the city more livable, but it can also convince an apathetic politician to champion its cause if it can demonstrate that this cause is popular. The same is true of many other public projects and contentious issues; support for many of them crosses ideological and partisan boundaries, both the normal national ones and the specific issue of machinists vs. reformists in American cities.

Consensus must be contrasted with its distant top-down cousin, outreach. Outreach is what a partisan or dominant side in a debate does to get the little fish on board. There’s almost no possibility of dialogue. In contrast, consensus implicitly assumes that all stakeholders own the decision, more or less equally even if one side began the push for it and in reality did most of the work. One can imagine a community board agreeing to a development plan put forth by a mayor, and then criticizing the mayor for it after it fails; one can’t imagine the same if the community board is the body that created the plan.

Film critic Pauline Kael, when asked to comment on why Nixon won the 1972 election, refused to comment, saying she couldn’t know because nobody she knew voted for him. (This has been misquoted in conservative circles as her saying that she couldn’t believe he could have won.) Kael’s contrition was unusual; most people are more than happy to generalize based on the few people they know who fit a type, or, even worse, based on stereotypes they’ve heard from others. It’s bad enough in a bipartisan world, but in city politics, the large number of different factions and worldviews is such that no one force can possibly know enough to govern for everyone.

Although the political process of any non-autocratic city forces some cooperation among groups, the practice can be authoritarian enough that many are completely unheard of in the halls of power. This is especially true of recent immigrants and others who have no long-term activist presence, or of racial minorities in cities with a majority race and racist politics. But even groups with some organization and voting power can be shut out by a Bloomberg, an Emanuel, or even a Villaraigosa. The result is that even policy that isn’t malevolent can be destructive; this is the sin of many postwar urban renewal programs, which didn’t have to accommodate the concerns of the neighborhoods they leveled and had no intention of listening to anyone they didn’t have to listen to.

The alternative is to embark on a process that’s slow, but more robust. It’s immune to changes in electoral fortunes, since swings from 52-48 to 48-52 don’t have such a huge impact on policy. The roads movement in the US got everything it wanted from the 1910s to the 1950s, from governing ideologies ranging from Hooverism to New Deal liberalism. It’s important to imitate this one aspect of the roads movement, and ensure as many groups as possible pull in the same direction.

There are always authoritarians-in-making, people who pay lip service to any consensual and democratic concept they need to be seen to support but in reality seek power for themselves and surround themselves with yes-men. Those we need to be watchful of, to make sure that they never have the power to cause permanent damage. Streetsblog has shown glimpses of holding the Bloomberg administration’s feet to the fire on issues on which the city has not been a positive force for livability – for example, the 1st/2nd Avenue bike lanes – but we need to do more than that, and ensure that even if an autocrat has power, we use him more than he uses us.

Switching from a fundamentally authoritarian booster mentality to consensus governance has no hope of getting us demolition of low-performing or city-splitting freeways, or Hong Kong-style traffic restraint, at least not until the far future. It will take a long time to overturn preexisting anti-urban biases – even longer than necessary, since it will be based on consultation with many groups that oppose gentrification and find what’s happening to American cities now a bad thing. It requires letting go of many proposals that are currently too expensive, and focusing on making the process friendlier to good transit and walkability and less so to boondoggles and pollution. It requires sitting down with people we may find abhorrent on other issues. Its saving grace is only that, in the medium and long runs, it works.